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Putin's propaganda machine has built a very strange story about MH17

Chris Jackson

Julia Ioffe has a fascinating piece in TNR about two aspects of the Russian media's coverage of the MH17 disaster. First, they've created a propaganda bubble in which the West's anger is completely inexplicable:

Did you know Malaysia Air Flight 17 was full of corpses when it took off from Amsterdam? Did you know that, for some darkly inexplicable reason, on July 17, MH17 moved off the standard flight path that it had taken every time before, and moved north, toward rebel-held areas outside Donetsk? Or that the dispatchers summoned the plane lower just before the crash? Or that the plane had been recently reinsured? Or that the Ukrainian army has air defense systems in the area? Or that it was the result of the Ukrainian military mistaking MH 17 for Putin's presidential plane, which looks strangely similar?

Second, the Russian ruling class are captive to a propaganda machine that now has its own autonomous logic.

This has had a noticeable impact on the ruling class, [political consultant Gleb] Pavlovsky says, which has to watch this stuff in order to stay au courant. And they become less sane as a result, too, which limits their ability to adequately assess a situation such as this and devise a good way out of it.

"It's noticeable that the Kremlin is much more tempered than Russian TV but can't change it," Pavlovsky says. "It's fallen into a trap, so it's now trying to function within the strictures of this picture." He cites the example of the PR contortions the Kremlin had to use just to announce that it would not send troops into eastern Ukraine. "In this seemingly controlled media, any rational political arguments of the state have to be hidden and packaged in idiotic, jingoistic rhetoric," Pavlovsky says.

This kind of dynamic is hardly unique to Russia. In general, people are remarkably good at discounting dissonant information that would undermine their preconceptions. But the basic psychological processes that exist everywhere are exacerbated by an authoritarian political structure and climate of systematic intimidation of opposition media.

All this is ultimately going to serve to undermine Russia's interests. Things like the mistreatment of the corpses at the crash site serve no conceivable purpose, and only increase the odds of punitive moves from European countries. But a Russian public that's unaware of what hot water the country is in won't be ready for the kind of apologetic posture that would maximize Putin's ability to make nice over the plane without making substantive concessions around Ukraine.

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